Twins miss chance to take over first

Twins miss chance to take over first

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins first baseman Justin Morneau was doing a little scoreboard watching prior to Saturday's game against the Indians. Good news was in the offing -- the Royals had just defeated the White Sox, putting first place in the American League Central there for the taking.

But just as was the case in every day since May 19, the club will fall asleep in second place. The latest unsuccessful attempt by the Twins to overcome the White Sox came via a 5-1 loss against the Indians on Saturday in front of 40,937 at the Metrodome.

"I looked out there 10 minutes before our game started," Morneau said. "Their score was final -- if we won, we go into first. But it doesn't matter who is in first on Aug. 2, it matters on Sept. 28."

The Twins last spent a day in first place on May 13. Since then, the club is 3-9 in games on days it enters a half-game out of the division lead.

This time, Minnesota was baffled by Cleveland starter Paul Byrd, who entered the game 5-10 with a 4.93 ERA, though coming off back-to-back wins.

The Twins scored their only run in the third inning, when Carlos Gomez and Denard Span started things off by consecutively bunting for singles. Nick Punto moved the pair up a base with a sacrifice bunt. With first open, Byrd walked Joe Mauer on four pitches to bring up Morneau, who hit a sacrifice fly to center field. But Byrd wriggled out of the jam with no further damage.

Outside of nifty bunting, Minnesota could not solve the veteran. Byrd went seven innings, surrendering only one earned run on six hits and two walks.

"Once he got the lead, it looked like he was on the corner of everything -- offspeed, down, popping the fastball in to jam guys," acting manager Scott Ullger said. "[There was] very good pitching tonight."

Ullger took the reins from Ron Gardenhire, who was suspended prior to the game for punting his hat and causing a ruckus during Thursday's victory over Chicago.

The Twins hit the ball hard Saturday but always seemed a few feet from inflicting damage. In the second inning, Morneau crushed a Byrd pitch high into the right-field corner, but the ball sailed near the foul pole and was ruled out of play. In the third and fifth, respectively, Jason Kubel and Mauer both drove deep flies to center field with Span on third base. In both instances, Grady Sizemore put away the drives just in front of the wall.

"Joe Mauer hits the ball 408 feet instead of 420 feet," Ullger said. "That's the way it is."

Sizemore was busy throughout while playing stellar defense, securing nine popouts.

Cleveland took control of the game in the fourth following a defensive miscue. David Dellucci led off the inning against Minnesota starter Kevin Slowey by hitting a shallow fly that was tracked by Gomez, Delmon Young and Punto. The ball fell amongst the three and rolled by Gomez, allowing Dellucci to end up on second. Jhonny Peralta tied the game with an RBI double before Kelly Shoppach lifted a 3-1 fastball that barely carried over the right-field baggie for a two-run homer with two out.

"We have the chance for the big inning, and we only end up getting one run out of it," Morneau said. "Then, we missed the popup and they take the momentum. ... We didn't really do anything after that."

In the fifth, the Indians beat the baggie again when Dellucci turned on a 2-1 Slowey fastball up-and-in and lofted it over the right-field wall for another two-run shot with two outs. The two home runs didn't go far -- Shoppach's traveled an estimated 348 feet and Dellucci's went 345 -- but they did substantial damage.

"A home run is a home run," Slowey said. "Obviously, Shoppach put a great swing on what I thought was a pretty good pitch -- a 3-1 pitch. After I came back into the dugout, I talked to [pitching coach Rick Anderson] a little bit and talked about the fact that first base was open. I had an opportunity there to throw a breaking ball up there or do something to try to go after the [next batter, Ryan Garko]."

Although the Twins had a few 400-foot-plus flyouts to center field and the Indians accrued a pair of homers on shorter round-trippers, Minnesota wasn't lamenting its misfortune.

"We had dumb hitting -- don't hit it to the deep part of the park," Ullger joked. "Their balls went over the fence. They were smart hitters."

Slowey lasted six innings, striking out seven but allowing five earned runs on six hits.

It all added up to another day looking up at Chicago, which still holds a half-game lead. Francisco Liriano will make his return to the Twins' rotation on Sunday, trying to improve the club's dismal record in such circumstances.

"In '06, I don't think we spent a day in first place until the last day of the season," Morneau said. "That's the only day that really matters. Obviously it would be nice to get out front and build up a lead, but at the same time, we're right there."

Thor Nystrom is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.